LOS ANGELES – When you think about it, it was one hell of a prank.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley lured Lane Kiffin and wife Layla to his Newport Beach home five months ago. Didn't say why.
“He says ‘Bring Layla,' so it must be something big,” USC's coach recalled.
What Kiffin didn't know about was a Barkley family tradition. The Barkleys make homemade ornaments each year to commemorate family events. On the day in question, the USC quarterback handed one such ornament to Kiffin.
“I made this ornament just for you,” Barkley said to his coach, “just so we could look back on the year we had.”
Kiffin then flipped it over and realized the significance. The quarterback coveted by the NFL and keeping USC's program hanging in the balance, had written: “One more year.”
At that point it was done. One of the greatest quarterbacks at a great quarterback school was going to complete his eligibility. Trojan Nation was relieved. But Kiffin wasn't going to let the prank die. He then called AD Pat Haden, telling him to call Barkley. The intimation being that Barkley had gone to the NFL.
The elaborate scam went on for more than half an hour as calls were exchanged.
“No, no, I'm coming back,” Barkley finally told Haden.
“Immediately, I was so pissed at Kiffin. He was just yanking my chain,” Haden said. “So I called him and I fired him for about 15 minutes.”
That bit of "news" has yet to be reported in what might be the most turbulent two years in USC football history. June 10 marks the two-year anniversary of the NCAA penalties that remain the sun around which everything in the football program continues to orbit.
Barkley came back despite those penalties.
USC won double digit games in 2011 for the first time since 2008 despite the penalties.
The Trojans are favored by some to be preseason No. 1 despite the penalties.
In the next few months, the pranks will dwindle. It's time to get serious. This week Barkley and 15 teammates are on a mission trip to Haiti, building homes. A time to bond before the season starts. As we get there, we allow you inside a discussion of the state of USC football and Barkley recently conducted at the school. On hand, at one time or another, were Haden, Kiffin, Barkley and his parents Les and Bev.
CBSSports.com: Matt is known for his faith. Is there a fair comparison in there to Tim Tebow?
Haden: “He doesn't wear it on his sleeve [as much as Tebow]. I don't dislike Tim Tebow at all, great role model. Matt has a way of doing it in his own private way.”
Matt Barkley: “I'd say we're two very different people. He's a very charismatic personality. I don't like running around fist-bumping the crowd. A lot of people act like he's the first person to do that posture [Tebowing]. He's definitely genuine about what he does. I admire him for not backing down.”
CBSSports.com: You were once at where Matt is now. What's it like being a senior, starting quarterback at USC?
Haden: “I was living off campus with a bunch of regular students. I didn't have visions of playing pro football. It was a different time and place. It's always fun being a quarterback of a major college team when things are going great.”
CBSSports.com: Did Matt consult you about coming back for his senior season?
Haden: “I talked to Matt and his parents in this room. We didn't say, ‘Please come back.' We said, ‘If you come back these are some of the things we'll try to do.
‘From my standpoint, I'll try to introduce you to some of those influential people in Southern California, so post-career you'll know these people. You'll know what these careers are about. One of our board members, [venture capitalist] Mark Stevens, started Google and Yahoo and PayPal.'
‘When you take your classes in the fall, let's find some really cool, unique classes. Something you never ever have a chance to take.' I'm not sure that's the reason he came back, but … he's not interested in money or worldly things. I think he's going to have a year where he has a real blast. He was here during some really rough moments of the probation.”
CBSSports.com: What was your initial reaction when Matt announced he was coming back?
Receiver Robert Woods: “Let's just start right now. We have so much potential. I guess the selfish thing is to win a national championship.”
CBSSports.com (to Lane Kiffin): Describe how you dealt with the penalties the day they came down.
Kiffin: “We had a team meeting that day. I told them, ‘There are worse things that are going to happen in your life. Last year the entire team believed and operated under that. We don't talk about it, because if you talk about it you give them an excuse not to play great.”
Bev Barkley: “You don't realize the Pac-10 is going to become the Pac-12 and then there is going to be a Pac-12 championship that they can't play in.
“You think at first, ‘Oh, there is the appeal. This is so draconian. Of course they're going to pull back on it and they're going to let us play in a bowl game.' It was really weighty the first year. You'd go places like the Hawaii game [in 2010]. They were chanting that they were cheaters.”
CBSSports.com: What's this time been like? I know there was a cookout at your place with players a couple of days after the sanctions came down in 2010.
Bev Barkley: “I've got the sacred journals. Someday there will be a book. I've written off and on, definitely every day for the last four years. Every game, every story, every anecdote. It's in there.”
Matt Barkley: “She's a great writer too.”
CBSSports.com (to Matt): You and your family visited Nigeria during one of your mission trips. I read where a bomb went off at a city you were staying the previous day.
Matt Barkley: “Danger is something you have to consider. When you do have faith in a higher power that is bigger than yourself, you don't have anything to fear.”
CBSSportsLine (to Les Barkley moments after he had stepped off a flight from a mission trip to Haiti): “Hope Force International does quick strike disaster relief. I'm flying back here and I'm sitting next to a guy, we're talking. Two minutes later, the in-flight screen says ‘Hope Flight International'. There's a picture of me holding a baby, a Haitian baby.
“I set this medical team up in the yard of a Catholic hospital. It's completely pancaked. They treated about 3,000 people. People were lined up down the street to be seen by doctors. This 16-year-old girl gave birth on the street waiting to see our doctors. I'm holding the baby.
“The guy on the flight goes, ‘That's you.'
CBSSports.com: What are the players going to do while they're in Haiti?
Les Barkley: “They're going to build four houses -- 200-something square foot houses. There have been about 40 of them already. These families have been living in tarps for two years. Good for the boys because they're going to leave giving these families a house.
“It's going to be great for these guys to see this. Then they come back and hopefully they have a heart to serve further. It's neat they're all going down together … If the team is able to do what they are potentially capable of doing, what a grand story.”
CBSSports.com: Describe your son's decision process when Matt was considering the NFL.
Les Barkley: “I said to Matt after the season, ‘OK, I have to take off and go overseas for a week or so. You just kind of decompress.'
“I said, ‘I'm going to put you in front of people. You're going to have the brain bucket and the heart bucket. What you're giving up monetarily to stay [versus] all the variables.' After a couple of weeks, he said, ‘Enough.' I said, ‘Now it's up to you. You can make a brain decision, you can make a heart decision or you can make a brain/heart decision, but you can't get any more facts.' “
CBSSports.com: So how did it finally go down?
Les Barkley: “He said, ‘I can't do it' [go to the NFL]
CBSSports.com: How has the probation affected the team?
Les Barkley: “I think it was unfair what happened. From everything I can surmise, I think the level of the sanctions were unfair. And they continue to impact a lot of people. One of the things that always struck me, there should be a better way to do it … The fact that these young men have weathered through this, is a great story for them.”
CBSSports.com: Before any of that happened, Pete Carroll left after Matt's first season. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian left for the Washington job. Matt had been close to both.
Les Barkley: “I said, ‘OK get over it. It's going to happen again. It happens in business.' When Pete left, everybody went dead. That's when Matt said, ‘I've got to call recruits. He called [recruit] Kyle Prater. He was up at the football office by himself. I think he took on some responsibility early on with USC.”
“In Matt's early years, there were some pretty pretentious, prima-donna types on the team. I just don't see it on this team.”